Friday, January 28, 2011

Brothers Gonna Work It Out: An Interview With Black Cinema Expert David Walker (Part 2)

In part two of "Brothers Gonna Work it Out" (You can read part one by clicking here), Black Cinema expert David Walker talks about the experience of writing the hilarious faux trailer “Blackstar Warrior.”  He also talks about the trials and tribulations of making and marketing of his new film “My Dinner With A.J.,” as well as his upcoming novel.

Scott Tre: You were involved with that short Blackstar Warrior.  How did that project come about?

David Walker: Matt Haley, who’s the guy who directed it, is known more in the comic book world.  He’s a comic book artist.  Matt and I have been friends for a long time.  He wanted to break into film.  He’s had this film project that he’s been developing for a while.  As happens, it fell apart.  So he was really just jonesing to do a movie, anything.  I used to tell him “You should do a short or something like that until you can figure out what your feature is gonna be. 

A couple of years earlier he had done this illustration of Lando Calrissian, and it was like Lando Calrissian in a Blaxploitation type movie.  He’d just done it for some friends, but somehow it had gotten posted on the internet and people thought “This would make such a great movie.”  So he decided for whatever reason, because Matt's crazy, “Hey, we should do like a fake trailer for a Blaxploitation Star Wars.”  And because I’m as crazy as he is I was like “Yeah, sure.  Let’s do it.”  He asked me to write it and I said okay.  

It wasn’t as easy as you would think because writing a fake trailer you still wanna try and come up with some semblance of a story and then build scenes around it.  So that’s kind of what we did.  I sat down with him.  It didn’t take forever.  I probably wrote the bulk of it in a few days.  Then we wrestled with “Are we gonna be really comical about it?  Is it gonna be a spoof?”  Black Dynamite hadn’t come out yet at this point and I was like I don’t want this to totally look like Black Dynamite or I’m Gonna Git You Sucka or something like that.  I would just rather have it look like a trailer to a regular Blaxploitation movie that looking back on it 30 years later or 40 years later you might go “This movie kind of looks like it might have sucked, but it still might be fun.”  

So that was the approach that I took and because I get pretty obsessive with these things I created this whole back story of how this movie came to be.  I wrote out the whole history of it.  What I did was I just sort of incorporated a back history of The Star Wars Holiday Special, which is sort of like the black spot on all of Star Wars mythology.  People just wonder how the Hell did the Star Wars Holiday Special get made.  I kind of used that as the beginning template of this history that I was writing.  So we shot some behind the scenes documentary footage, this sort of mockumentary thing that I personally don’t think convinced anybody that it was real.  Maybe some people might have thought it was real.  When the trailer first hit there was some people that were really shocked like “What the hell is this?!”  But then most people recognized Leonard, the lead actor, he’s on Heroes.  Most people recognized that right away, but it was still fun.

The legendarily awful Star Wars Holiday Special

I had a lot of fun doing that thing.  I’ve made a few films on my own now, some real low budget stuff.  I know more people have seen the Blackstar Warrior thing than have seen all my other films combined, which is kind of depressing when you think about it (laughs).   We’re doing a convention later this year, like some comic sci-fi convention, and we’re actually doing a Blackstar Warrior panel.  I was like, you gotta be kidding me.  So it’s gonna be me and Matt and Leonard.  I think the guy who plays Han Solo, this guy Jimmy.  It’s going to be kind of fun.  Apparently George Lucas saw it and I’m still trying to get that story straightened out.  We never got a cease and desist.  No one has sued us.  So apparently everybody really likes it.

Scott Tre: Star Wars spoofs have become a cliché, especially in recent years.  Many of them aren’t as funny as they’d like to think that they are.  How did you guys avoid that pitfall?

David Walker: For one thing, we made the decision to not try to be funny.  We weren’t making fun of Star Wars and we weren’t making fun of Blaxploitation movies, at least I wasn’t.  My theory about comedy is don’t try to be funny.  Matt and I wound up collaborating.  We did a second project that we just posted on line, this little Superman thing.  While we were shooting it I kept saying don’t try to be funny. Don’t try to sell this as a joke.  Just be as straight forward as you can.  That’s where I think a movie like Black Dynamite kind of went wrong was some scenes that were really, really funny because they were played pretty straight.  The moment they’ve got Richard Nixon there it’s like, okay we’ve crossed the line.  Now you’re trying too hard to be funny.  So I really went for it.  

Richard Nixon prepares to open up a can of whup-ass on Black Dynamite.

I have this theory about Blaxploitation in general, which kind of goes back to your question about what would’ve happened if it had been allowed to survive.  Blaxploitation as an overall genre was pretty much on its last legs by the time Star Wars became a really big hit, so we never saw Shaft In Space.  We never saw the Moonraker equivalent to a Blaxploitation movie.  Moonraker was like the worst James Bond movie ever, or the second worse.  Octopussy was the worst, but Moonraker was pretty bad.  It was so clear that they were trying to capture the energy of Star Wars.  So for years I was like, what would it have been like if they made a Blaxploitation movie that was basically ripping off the sci-fi movies of the 70’s?  So honestly that was the main approach I took with writing it.  I took it really seriously like, what would Shaft In Space have been like?  People laugh at me. 

 I can’t remember the guys name who directed Black Dynamite.  I met him right before the movie came out.  At that point there was all this talk of a sequel and then unfortunately the movie tanked at the box office.  I said to him “If you ever do a sequel to Black Dynamite it’s gotta have a huge sci-fi component, because no one’s ever seen that before.”  Even nowadays, in terms of black characters in sci-fi, we see the supporting roles.  I think the biggest impact we’ve seen were maybe the Matrix movies.  I kind of took it seriously, like this is an opportunity for us to make what could have been made.  That was it. 

The comedian Paul Provenza just put out a book called All About Comedy.  He was saying, and I agree with this, comedy is the one form of expression that if you fail while doing it, it’s like you didn’t do shit.  A musician can record a song that sucks, but nobody will say well that that’s not music.  A writer can write a book that’s terrible and nobody will say well that that’s not literature.  They’ll just say that this is terrible literature or this is terrible music.  If a comedian ain’t funny, people will just say that’s not comedy.  It’s like the only form of artistic expression that if you fail, it’s like a woman being pregnant but giving birth to a dog (laughs).  You’ve given birth to something that’s not even human.  A comedian who isn’t funny has given birth to something that’s not comedy.  What the fuck is it?  I’m always very conscious of that and I was definitely very conscious of that with Blackstar Warrior.  

I was also conscious of that with the Superman piece that we did, which I personally think is pretty funny.  I’ve yet to talk to anybody who doesn’t think it’s funny.  I was like, we have to be so straight faced with this that people just won’t know.  You’re better off if people don’t know that they should laugh but they are laughing anyway than if they just don’t laugh period (laughs).  That is the worst, man. 

Scott Tre: Tell me a little bit about My Dinner with A.J.  It’s on the festival circuit now.  How has the response been?

David Walker: We just got accepted into our first festival, so it hasn’t even screened yet.  It’s going to be screened next month at the Beloit film festival which is in Wisconsin somewhere.  Then I’m hoping it’s gonna show up in Seattle in March at the Langston Hughes film festival.  I’ve been really selective about where we’ve submitted it so far.  I’m  remixing the sound.  The concept was, there was a movie that came out in the 80’s called My Dinner With Andre.  Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory wrote and starred in it and Louis Malle directed it.  It’s literally two guys sitting around a table and talking for two hours.  If you’re an independent film aficionado or student, most people either know the movie or they’ve seen it.  I enjoy the film even though it’s kind of pretentious.  It’s very artsy-fartsy. 

I always joked around, like no one would ever make a movie like My Dinner With Andre with black guys.  You couldn’t do it.  Black guys aren’t allowed to be intellectual on camera.  I always said Friday was the closest you’d ever get to My Dinner With Andre.  Don’t get me wrong because I really like Friday a lot.  But I wanted to make a movie and I didn’t have a lot of money.  I feel like I’m at a point in my life where if I want to do something I’m want to try to do something that really gets people talking. 

I co-wrote this thing with a friend of mine.  It’s the same premise as My Dinner with Andre which is two guys just sitting at restaurant having a conversation.  I was like can we put something together that’s compelling?  People will watch it for 80, 90 minutes.  Just two guys talk talking.  Can we avoid talking about certain things?  Like, how intelligent can we keep the conversation?  Can it be intellectual?  Can the discourse be like something that both a black audience and a white audience can relate to?  Maybe there’ll be some parts that a black audience that are like “Nah, Nah, I’m not feeling that” and there’s other parts of the white audience would go “What the hell are those guys talking about?”

 So far we’ve only shown it to one audience.  I showed like a month ago and the response was tremendous.  The audience was stacked with enough people that knew me that I felt like I’m not 100% sure how other people are going to respond to it.  My buddy Mike Dennis in Philly, he runs Real Black TV and he does a screening series in Philly which is a great city to take your film to.  It’s a very film savvy community there.  Cross culturally very film savvy.  New York as well, parts of New York.  That whole northeastern part of the U.S., that’s where the true challenge is.  I wanna set up screens in New York, Philly.  Not Boston so much, but D.C. for sure.  I don’t know how it would play down in Atlanta.  I don’t get Atlanta at all (laughs).  Over the next several months that mostly what I’m trying to push out there.  

Unfortunately the guy that I co-wrote this thing with who is a good friend of mine, we had a falling out.  Which is completely a case of life imitating art (laughs).  So I’m sort of on my own in getting the film out there.  I don’t have someone helping me at the festivals.  I’m worried that it’s going to be slower going than I thought it was gonna be, but I don’t hate it.  The worst part of it is I’m in it, and I’m not much of an actor.  The worst part of it is just looking at my mug for 82 minutes.  I think that both black audiences and white audiences will be able to connect with it.  The conversation itself is more about how do you remain true to yourself.  So we talk a lot about what it’s like to have a dream and put that dream aside.  In this case two guys who are friends have been trying to make a movie and then failed miserably at it.   

Unfortunately, People talk about the great American success stories, those are few and far between.  There’s a hell of a lot of great American failure stories out there (laughs).  I guarantee you if you’re standing in line at the grocery store, at least one other person has their story of epic failure.  But I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of.  I think if you get knocked down you just sort of get back up.  Success in and off itself is a process.  It’s the journey more than the destination, which is the only thing that’s kept me from shooting myself over the years.  

Scott Tre: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

David Walker: Yeah.  I need to hustle a little bit and be a pimp.  I’ve got a novel coming out.  It will probably be out in March of this year.  The book is done.  I’m working on the final edits of it.  I’m working on the cover design.  I finished writing it over a year ago.  My agent shopped it for a good eight or nine months.  Every publisher in North America has now rejected my book.  It does wonders for the ego, that’s for sure.  In the last several years I’ve done a lot of volunteer work with kids with severe disabilities and at risk gang kids.  I just sort of got recruited into doing it.  People were like “Hey, you’re a guy who’s been through a lot.  Maybe you could help these kids out.”  I took to working with these kids in one capacity or another.  I was motivated to write a book that teenagers might read.  I grew up reading The Three Investigators and The Hardy Boys and bullshit like that.  Now kids have Harry Potter or whatever, and Twilight.  Few of those books actually have any characters that are of color, whether it’s Hispanic or black or Asian.  When they do have them usually the characters are clichés.  They’re not the heroes. 

So I decided to write this novel, which is a young adult action adventure novel about a black teenager who’s about to go to prison but instead he gets sent to this rehabilitation program where he goes to work for the world’s greatest superheroes.  So he’s the guy mops the floors and does the laundry and all that sort of crap for the equivalent of the Justice League or The Fantastic Four or something in regular comics world. 

The agent that I got fell in love with the book and he’s a pretty solid literary rep.  I have a manager who loves it.  There’s been interest in Hollywood, but not a single publisher wanted the book.  And they all kept saying the same thing:  Teenage boys don’t read books.  It’s not girl friendly enough.  To which I kept responding Well maybe the reason teenage boys don’t read books is because all the books out there suck.  What teenage boy in his right mind is gonna wanna read TwilightTwilight is crap.  After a year of hearing all that stuff and doing research and realizing not just the philosophy that teenage boys don’t read, especially black teenage boys, but that men don’t read either, I was like maybe that’s true but someone’s gonna read my book. 

So I just self-published this thing, which has been incredibly difficult.  I’m just sort of putting all that stuff together, laying the ground work out there, but I’m still gonna do it.  All the things that I’ve done including BadAzz Mofo and all of that, I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve ever done.  I’m ashamed of a couple of women that I’ve dated (laughs), but I’m not ashamed of any of the projects I’ve ever undertaken.  My novel is like it.  I was in the hospital last month, I was really sick.  I had pneumonia which had spread to my heart and the doctors are of course preparing me for the worst.  I was like I’m not going anywhere.  As I was laying in the hospital bed I just kept thinking You know the reason I can’t die is because the best thing I’ve done is still sitting on a computer somewhere and it hasn’t been put out into the world yet. 

Someone just told me the other day that everything they know about Blaxploitation movies they know from reading things that I’ve written.  That’s great.  I feel real honored that people think that way.  I think that this book that I’ve written is head and shoulders above all of that because what I’ve done is I’m giving the world the first real black superhero that’s not like a joke (laughs).  Don’t get me wrong because I love every black superhero there has ever been, but that doesn’t mean at some point I didn’t hang my head in shame and go “I can’t believe this guys wearing a yellow Disco and a metal head band (laughs)”.   

Luke Cage in metal head band and yellow disco shirt.

The world of hip-hop gave us some great heroes, but a lot of them are steeped in the more negative aspects of our culture.  Well not our culture, that’s bullshit.  Black culture is not all about crime and violence and all that sort of stuff.  I just wanted to create a character that was still kind of bad ass and can do some pretty great things but isn’t like Snoop Dogg (laughs).  I’m not saying anything against Snoop Dogg.  I wanted to create something different than what’s out there.  Six months from now I’ll still be pushing this movie My Dinner With A.J., but the book that I’ve written is it.  It’s supposed to be the first in a series of three books.  That’s really where I’m channeling a lot of my energy as I get older.  Because making movies, that’s like a young man’s game, man.  You start hitting your forties and its “Oh God, I don’t know if I can do this crap anymore.”  Sitting at a computer writing is not that draining.   


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